Letters   |   Iraq

CPJ alarmed by press violations in Iraqi Kurdistan

May 5, 2009

His Excellency Nechirvan Barzani
Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government 
Office of the Kurdistan Regional Government
1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 210
Washington
, D.C. 20006

Via facsimile: (202) 637-2723

Dear Prime Minister Barzani,

The Committee to Protect Journalists would like to bring to your attention the deterioration of press freedom in Kurdistan. There has been an alarming wave of politically motivated criminal lawsuits filed against mostly independent journalists as well as blatant violations of the region's new press law. The law has no provisions for jail terms for journalists, but journalists are still being imprisoned.

CPJ is encouraged by some steps your government has taken to boost press freedom in Kurdistan, including the passage of the press law in September 2008. On April 27, local press reported on a decision made by Qadir Hama Jan, director of Sulaymaniyah security forces (Asaish), to drop all lawsuits filed by Asaish against journalists in Sulaymaniyah province. CPJ welcomes this decision and encourages all government agencies to follow this example.

On April 29, the first court hearing of the trial of at least two suspects who have been charged with plotting to murder Ahmed Mira, editor-in-chief of the Sulaymaniyah, based magazine Livin, was held. Mira told CPJ that when the news of the arrests was reported by the Kurdish press in October 2008 you had contacted him to express your support for his case. We appreciate your support. CPJ is closely following the trial and has called on the relevant authorities to ensure that it is fair and public.

Despite these positive steps, however, Zirak Kamal of the Kurdistan Journalists' Syndicate told CPJ that since January the organization has documented 31 lawsuits against journalists in the region, of which 26 have been filed under the defunct 1969 penal code. CPJ research indicates that more than 50 lawsuits have been filed against journalists this year alone.

CPJ is particularly alarmed by the April 23 lawsuit filed by the minister of Martyrs and Anfal affairs, Chinar Sa'd, against Nabaz Goran, editor-in-chief of Jehan magazine, on defamation charges in which she demands 1 billion Iraqi dinars (US$859,000) for alleged damage to her reputation. The case stemmed from a news article in which the magazine reported that the minister had taken a two-month trip to London. The minister's office had confirmed the information to the magazine. Goran also faces no less than 17 other charges for publishing various articles in the press of which four have been filed in 2009. Most of those lawsuits have been filed by government and party officials. We call on you to urge the relevant government officials and agencies to drop these politically motivated lawsuits.

The implementation of the new press law has not been without problem. One of the high points of the press law is that it does not prescribe jail as a punishment for journalists who are charged with press offenses. However, CPJ research has uncovered several cases where judges have simply ignored the press law, instead charging and convicting journalists under the 1969 Iraqi penal code.

Since October 20, 2008, the day the law officially went into force, CPJ has documented the following violations:

  • Shwan Dawdi, editor-in-chief of the Kirkuk-based newspaper Hawal, was found guilty on November 4, 2008, of three defamation charges for an article on courthouse problems that was published in 2004 and was sent to prison the following day to serve a one-month sentence under the 1969 penal code. After spending eights days behind bars, a court of appeals overturned the decision.
  • A court in Arbil sentenced Adel Hussein, a doctor and a freelance journalist with the independent weekly Hawlati, to six months in jail for violating public custom under the 1969 penal code on November 24, 2008, after he published an article in April 2007 in Hawlati about sodomy and health. President Masoud Barzani pardoned him the day before Eid. Hussein was released on December 9.
  • On January 7, Jassim Muhammad, a journalist and the director of the media division of the Kurdistan Islamic Union in Zakho, was arrested by Asaish for "broadcasting without a license" and was released after six days on 10 million Iraqi dinars (US$8,650) bail. He told CPJ that the newly founded TV station was testing transmission equipment when Asaish stormed the building and arrested him. He is facing charges under Article 240 of the 1969 Iraqi penal code for "disobeying official orders."
  • Kawa Garmiani, a journalist with Khawn magazine, was arrested on January 28 for two defamation lawsuits, under Article 433 of the 1969 penal code, filed by government agencies in Kalar, 100 miles (160 kilometers) southeast of Sulaymaniyah, he told CPJ. After spending five days in jail, he was released on 500,000 Iraqi dinars (US$430) bail, he said. No court date has yet been set.
  • On January 18, freelance journalist Nasseh Abdel Raheem was detained on defamation charges, he told CPJ. The lawsuits were filed by the Halabja office of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and members of the party in response to an article the writer had posted on the Kurdistan Post Web site criticizing the party office in Halabja, he said. Abdel Raheem was released on 1.5 million dinars (US$1,294) bail the next day, he said. Abdel Raheem told CPJ that so far 27 lawsuits have been filed against him by KDP members. His next court hearing is scheduled for May 25.
  • On March 18, Soran Omar, editor-in-chief of Rega magazine, was arrested in Sulaymaniyah on defamation charges filed against him by an anonymous woman, he told CPJ. He was released on March 19 on 2 million dinars bail (US$1,715). A court hearing has not yet been set. The magazine is facing seven lawsuits--all of them by relatives of officials or government agencies--for different articles published in 2009.
  • On March 31, Lazgin Chuqi, a journalist with AKNews, an Arbil-based news agency, and Sebah Atrushi, Duhok bureau chief of the agency, appeared in court to answer defamation charges filed against them by a police officer who claimed that Chuqi had falsely attributed a quote to him in a story. Chuqi was detained for a day and released on bail bond. Atrushi told CPJ that when they appeared before the judge on March 31, the judge refused to try them under the new press law and instead charged them under the 1969 penal code. In mid-April the officer dropped the charges against the journalists, Atrushi told CPJ.

We call on you to ensure that all relevant agencies and officials are aware that journalists must not be imprisoned for press offenses and that they must be tried in accordance with the press law, not the 1969 penal code. It is your government's responsibility to ensure that the press law is implemented to the fullest extent.

Criminal lawsuits must not be used by politicians who receive unfavorable coverage--ultimately, this barrage against the media will only erode Kurdistan's ongoing efforts to be a vibrant democracy. We urge you to see that government officials drop politically motivated criminal suits and stop the practice of filing them altogether.

Thank you for your attention to these urgent matters. We look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

Joel Simon
Executive Director

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